Beethoven: The Complete String Quartets, Vol. 1
Ambitiously, the Belcea Quartet have recorded the complete 16 String Quartets of Beethoven, issued in two boxes, of which this is the first. The performances are from concerts given in the Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, so the acoustic is superb, though some might find the closeness of the miking overpowering. You certainly feel close to the players – who, by the way, make no extraneous noises.
Beethoven’s Quartets are his most challenging works – both to perform and to listen to, and the Belceas remind us of that challenge. They play with extraordinary strenuousness, very unlike the late Alban Berg Quartet with whom they studied. The Belceas re-enact the creative torments of the composer to a degree where you feel their instruments might suffer, especially the leader, Corina Belcea, whose tone becomes raucous and harsh. By contrast, the magnificent cellist Antoine Lederlin cultivates a rounded tone, even under pressure, but the overall effect is of a lean, muscular sound, suited especially to the rigours of the Op. 95 Quartet, the ‘Serioso’, and never more serious than here.
By parcelling out the Quartets, they divvy up the greatest between the sets: on this recording, we get the third Razumovsky, and two of the late Quartets, of which Op. 131 receives a tremendous account, encompassing both its violence and its serenity, which is lacking from some of the others. Op. 127 strikes me as less successful compared with some of its great past recordings. The Belceas give four of the early Op. 18 works their full weight: they play wonderfully, but not, perhaps, with the intensity throughout that they are capable of. You can imagine them recording these works again in ten years’ time.